Tuesday 20 July 2010

The many things we don't know about this leadership contest

Somewhere in a parallel universe, Labour could be crowning a new party leader this coming weekend. The handful of hustings would be a distant memory with the final few ballot papers winging their way back from members to be counted ahead of a special leadership conference.

Oh, how the media commentators would complain. Why was the party "in denial" about the need to debate its election defeat, and arrogant enough to think an opposition party could compete with the World Cup for public attention? Hadn't Labour missed a trick in failing to learn from the wisdom of Michael Howard in finally giving the Tories more space to think after 2005? Party members too would ask whether there had been a proper chance to discuss the first contested leadership contest for 16 years.

Back in the real world, having got the longer contest that almost everybody (outside the shadow cabinet at least) thought was needed, people are complaining about that instead.

The low-level chorus of chuntering about a "boring" leadership contest has itself become pretty boring.

That there are too many hustings has become a staple of media commentary. But most media coverage of the contest has also been pretty passive - relying largely on the candidates to give interviews, speeches or write op-eds on specific issues.

Nobody can confidently predict the outcome of the most open Labour leadership contest in over half a century. There is a dearth of information about what is going on. There has been no public polling of party members, except that held privately by the campaigns themselves. Yet the campaign remains largely enclosed in the fog of war. It is particularly striking that there has been almost no detailed reporting or scrutiny of the ground war. What are the leadership campaigns doing to try to win votes and the leadership itself?

How is David Miliband using his funding advantage? What does the Ed Miliband campaign's claim to be running an "insurgency" campaign against the frontrunner amount to? Can any of Ed Balls, Andy Burnham or Diane Abbott have plausible strategies which could win the electoral college, and what are they?

Every campaign would like the Obama stardust, but how far does the talk from every campaign of a new "movement politics" mean that they are pioneering campaign techniques which will change the way parties campaign in future?

There are quite a lot of nuts and bolts issues about the election itself. Given the weight of MP votes in the electoral college, the balance of second preferences in that section will have enormous weight: who can predict how will they break depending on who the final candidates are? How much higher should we expect affiliated turnout to be than the 8% in 2007; will it be 30% as in 1994 - and how would that affect who votes and the relative prospects of the candidates?

Perhaps these important gaps in coverage of the election arise because this would be too anoraky for the political lobby - this is only a race for leader of the opposition, after all, and there is a Big Society out there to get to grips with - yet may require more access, shoe leather and specialist knowledge than most of the blogosphere can muster, where the main focus has been on advocacy of who is supporting each candidate and why.

As we approach the business end of the election, we might well see more digging into these issues, perhaps from a mixture of mainstream media alongside blog outlets - perhaps LeftFootForward, LabourList and Labour Uncut, who might be able to stake out the inside track, and individuals like Anthony Painter who have a particular interest in the politics of organisation.

Nor is simply grumbling about the grumbling much of a constructive response either. Up here in think-tank towers, Next Left is better placed to cover the politics of ideas than the politics of organisation. But we will attempt a series of posts over the next few weeks, looking at each of the campaigns, and what they are doing to try to win the race. Do please share your posts, ideas and questions with us.


On the ideas front, if MPs and ex-spads want to complain about the contest not setting politics alight, it is surely incumbent upon them to step forward and share their own brilliant ideas about how to do so with the rest of us. Calls for "a new narrative" or "a distinctive philosophy" are fairly useless without spelling out contentfully what that might contain.

More seriously, I hope we will hear considerably more in the next two months, from ex-ministers with lessons for the future from Labour's time in office, and from Labour's newly elected MPs.

It is not surprising that several significant contributions to the party's debate - from Jon Cruddas, John Denham, Pat McFadden, David Lammy and others - have come from those not running for leader.

Harriet Harman told the Fabians this month that Labour's talented class of 2010 would challenge the sense that they should keep their heads down and learn the ropes for the first 15 years or so.

Many MPs - new and old - share the view that the party needs to shift an internal culture which has been too hierarchical and too closed to internal debate, regarding thinking aloud as disloyal or divisive. The remainder of the leadership contest is surely an ideal time to do so: constructive and open debate should not close with the election of a new leader. The interregnum is surely an ideal time for more voices to open up the party's debate. If we don't shift the party's culture of debate now, when is it ever going to happen?

1 comment:

Harry Barnes said...

So far Diane Abbot and Andy Burnham have agreed to publish "Manifestoes of Intent" - http://dronfieldblather.blogspot.com/2010/07/welcome-on-board-diane-and-andy.html
Sunder and ye other Fabians might like to use their influence to get the two Eds and the two Milibands to participate (2+2 making 3 in our world).